Morality and Politics: – Repentance versus Shame

Parashat Nitzavim VaYelekh: Deuteronomy 29:9-30:30

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are almost upon us. We will soon face the Day of Repentance and Atonement (teshuvah). In Deuteronomy 29:11-14, God promises to enter into a covenant with the people of Israel, not only with those who stand before Him, but with all future generations. There is one major condition. Israel must repent of its sins. Those who repent are contrasted with the one who would “follow his willful heart,” (29:18), one who will insist on I rather than We. The egocentric individual will not be forgiven by the Lord.

What is the consequence? The land will be devastated. The pessimistic portrait pictured in the Charlie Kaufman movie that I reviewed on Monday, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, will emerge supreme. Misfortune shall befall you with soil devastated by sulfur and salt. What is the consequence? The I’s will be uprooted and thrust into an alternate space like that portrayed in the TV series Counterpart. We have a choice. Repent and receive blessings. Act from a willful heart and be cursed. Ten verses in Deuteronomy (30:10-20) uses the root, shuva or repent, seven times. We are invited to return. We are invited to take responsibility for the error of our ways.

It really sounds like the old-time religion. And one should not be surprised if paragraphs like these turn a reader off. But I suggest that this is because the message is not heard; the language that has become clichéd obscures. Yet the message is simple and direct, neither too baffling nor beyond reach. (30:11) The meaning is not in the heavens of idealism where we can go up and observe it. Nor can we find it elsewhere on earth where the grass grows greener. We are face to face with the message in all that we hear every day. More significantly, the message is in your own mouth and your own heart. (30:14)

My last blog was on Idealists who analyze politics and insist political transactions should be led, not by self-interest, but by ideals, by goals of transparency that foster democracy and liberty and the rule of law. My next blog on the Israel/United Arab Emirates deal will take up the perspective of the Realists who would drive morality out of politics and make all politics a matter of power and self-interest. Is that the choice before us? Must we choose between being Idealists or Realists?

God instructed us to choose life over death. But both the Idealists and the Realists claim to have the handle on life. Which group is correct? Or is neither? There was a webinar this past Tuesday with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I love reading and hearing Rabbi Sacks, perhaps because we read the same secular thinkers and philosophers as our mentors, though he gives the greatest credit to three rabbis: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch. However, he studied under secular thinkers like Bernard Williams who wrote such influential books as Problems of the Self (1973) and Shame and Necessity (1993).

Jonathan Sacks has a new book that came out at the beginning of this month, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. I tried to point out that, from any political analytic perspective, all time is divided. There is always a Before and After. We are living in such a divided time. For Sacks, the time is divided between the present and the immediate past when morality has been driven out of politics, when politics has been turned into transactional exchange and the self-interest of enhancing one’s power. Monday’s blog will offer an example in the Realist examination of the Israel/UAE Agreement even though it is called the Abraham Agreement in order to stress the unity of the monotheistic religions rather than the beliefs and practices that divide them. The UAE insisted that it is about “We” but, as you will see, the Realists analyze the pact as rooted in I.

I published a long essay a long time ago called, “Power, Influence and Authority.” It dealt with two versions of each of those concepts – power as creative energy versus coercive power; influence as persuasion of ideas and arguments versus  material influence – bribes, pay-offs, incentives; and authority, authentic versus the formal authority of a position in a hierarchy. Sacks has a thesis that coercive power and moral influence must be kept separate. Religious leaders who trade in morality should stay out of politics, though they should certainly try to influence the polis. Politicians should stay out of religion. The function of those in judicial authority, the function of judges, is to apply morality to the political realm rooted in both their authentic and formal authority, both founded in the rule of law.

There are other themes which Sacks does not take up – such as why material influence must be bracketed when dealing with political issues and why coercive power must be excluded from the material economic realm. His focus was on the binary separation of morality and power politics. The function of religion is to exclude considerations of coercive power and material influence to attempt to shape the ideas and values of a polis. The function of politicians is to make decisions that take full consideration of the interests of constituents, but by placing those interests within a moral frame. Realists fail to do the latter; idealists would make morality dictate political policy rather than frame it and would thereby turn morality into a coercive force rather than an influential source.

It is one thing to try to guide the I to serve the We, to serve the common good. It is quite another to let the common good dictate to the individual how he or she should behave. The latter is the character of a shame culture. The use of morality to guide and influence the polity is a property of a guilt culture.

The Torah begins with a description of a shame or cancel culture in the story of Adam and Eve and how they are made to feel ashamed when they engage in sex. They were told that if they ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the tree of a moral order, there would be consequences. They ate and were thrust out of the Garden of Eden and had to spend their lives in the pain of living, the pain of labour both as work and in giving birth. What had they done wrong? Were they punished for disobedience?

That is not how a shame culture works, it distracts from the core moral issue. Adam and Eve were punished for hiding. They were punished for not owning up to what they did. The moral failure has to be separated from the consequences of their act. For that failure followed and did not precede the act. What preceded the act was desire and neither Adam nor Eve were forbidden from expressing their desires. Having sex was not the sin. The original sin belonged to Adam who thought he was God, who saw himself as God’s man on earth responsible for bringing things into being by naming them.

Adam was an isolate. He was your archetypal nerd. He had no friends. He had no companions. When God saw he was alone, he introduced him to Eve. But Adam never saw Eve as anything but an extension of his physical self. And he also othered his own body, for he thought of himself as primarily immaterial like God. He othered his body while, at the same time, viewed Eve as an extension of that body. His penis was a separate independent erect agent with its own voice. That is why he took no responsibility for the seduction. And Eve participated in the cover-up. And they were both expelled for failing to assume responsibility for what they did, for trying to hide it.

In a shame culture, what we now call a cancel culture – more on this in a future blog – there is no distinction between an agent and his or her act. A person is branded with a scarlet letter for what he or she did. Since there is no separation of agent and act, a person cannot be forgiven for what was done. The sin belongs to the sinner and not the behaviour. And the sinner cannot repent since the sin is viewed as having become part of his or her DNA.

As Rabbi Sacks said, the story of Adam and Eve is about appearances and that is why there is the effort to hide something from vision, to make it invisible. Out of a shame culture, an ethics of the eyes emerges. But Judaism is an ethics of the ear. The exit from the Garden meant that the heirs would go on to develop a morality of the ear and then a polity rooted in freedom and finally a nation with laws and land for that people. But in order to survive, in order to thrive, that covenant must be renewed regularly. Because Jews belong to a guilt culture even though they increasingly live in a secular shame culture, One can ask to be forgiven for one’s sins. What a person does and who that individual is are separable. An individual can accept the consequences of his or her acts. Ask for forgiveness, accept one’s punishment and return to be accepted as a full member of the community.

If we allow moralists to dictate our politics, we end up with a shame culture. If we allow politics to discard any reference to or guidance by morality, we end up with a cursed culture, a polis of corruption and dissolution. That is why we must live as realists but within a moral world. Only then can the I serve the We. Only then can every I retain the possibility of personal redemption through behaviour that takes back the sin of the act. That is why we must engage in charitable acts, why we must help the stranger, why we must reach out to the other with acts of loving kindness, why we must visit the sick and welcome those in need with acts of hospitality.

And that is why we must laugh. That is why an ironic tale, a big fish story of Jonah and the whale, is read on Yom Kippur. It is a joke. It is a satire. The sociologist Peter Berger wrote a book called Redeeming Laughter. We laugh because otherwise we would have to cry. Look at any evening of television news. CBC revisited the devastation caused by the explosion in Beirut and one had to cry.

I watched a TV series called Derry Girls focused on four teenaged girls from Derry, Northern Ireland and an English cousin of one of them. The series was proof positive that Irish humour can compete with Jewish humour any day of the week. The series is set against the catastrophic and violent conflict in Northern Ireland between the IRA and the British, with the ordinary Catholic and Protestant caught between and with virtually no knowledge of one another. That tragedy, until reconciliation and peace comes at the end, is held well in the background. In the foreground we see the Catholic girls driven by jealousy and pettiness acting out, belittling one another, dissing everyone in sight, getting into trouble and making themselves into more ridiculous, but loveable, beings in every episode. You watch and your sides will ache with laughter.

And laughter is the source of redemption. Confession, yes. Own up to what you do. But make fun of yourself in so doing. Make yourself the object of laughter because that is the best way to separate your stupid and ridiculous actions from who your really are.  Rejoice and hug God. You can ignore COVID-19. Be happy that you and God are together again.

Go to Yom Kippur services and then have a good chuckle. If you are not a Jew, watch Derry Girls instead. If you are Jewish, watch the series twice.

Shona Tova.


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